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The Latvian National Library in Riga. Photo: Janis Dripe

Gunnar Birkerts (1925–2017)

Latvian-born architect Gunnar Birkerts, known for his light-filled modernist buildings which reflect the Scandinavian architecture that inspired him, died at his home in Needham, Massachusetts, on Tuesday at the age of ninety-two, William Grimes of the New York Times reports. His passing was confirmed by his son, literary critic Sven Birkerts.

Born in Riga on January 17, 1925, Birkerts fled Latvia at the end of World War II. He settled in Germany, where he attended Stuttgart’s technical university and earned diplomas in engineering and architecture. Birkerts then moved to the United States, where he began his career at the Chicago-based firm Perkins & Will. Two years later, he joined the firm of Scandinavian architect Eero Saarinen, where he worked on the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, and the Milwaukee County War Memorial. Birkerts joined firm the Yamasaki, Leinweber & Associates in Birmingham in 1956 and eventually opened his own office with colleague Frank Straub in 1959. They designed several projects including the Marathon Oil Building in Detroit before Birkerts ended the partnership to start Birkerts & Associates in 1963. He went on to complete the South Wing addition to the Detroit Institute of Arts and the University of Detroit.

Among his most notable designs are the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, and the University of Michigan’s law library, for which he created an underground addition, completed in 1981, featuring a V-shaped glass moat which reflects the building’s Gothic tower, allowing it to be seen from fifty-six feet below ground. In the late 1980s he was commissioned to build the Latvian National Library in Riga. Known as the Castle of Light, the building is topped with a glass pyramid, which references a Latvian folk tale about a castle of light and a glass mountain. In recognition of the project, the American Institute of Architects awarded Birkerts its Library Building Award in 2017, calling the building “a contemporary Modernist masterpiece.”

Birkerts taught architecture at the University of Michigan from 1959 to 1990 and authored the following works: Subterranean Urban Systems (1974), Gunnar Birkerts: Buildings, Projects, and Thoughts, 1960–1985 (1985), and Process and Expression in Architectural Form (1994).

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